Point Counterpoint

Let’s Blame Ourselves

We should have seen this coming
By: Alex Wittenberg

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Houston—Final GOP debate, Feb. 26, 2016, Super Tuesday looming large. A bumptious Donald Trump berates Jeb Bush, who struggles to retort. Trump’s dominance is evident, and each of his opponents’ jabs is met with a slickness that renders them impotent. It’s as if his lack of a defense is the best defense indeed.

As we look back a year after Trump emerged victorious over Hillary Clinton, snapshots like these become more lucid. We’re forced to ask the retrospective question: How did we not see this coming? I’ll spare a digression on that note, but where I won’t is on our failure to expect what we should have from Trump: overt racism, anti-Semitism, nativism, and a general desecration of liberal ideals.

My contender in this point-counterpoint, Chris, will attempt to criticize my argument for not recognizing how bad our political climate has become under Trump. I think it’s been quite bad, actually; I just don’t think it’s fair to ascribe Trump credit for the centuries-old resentment that empowered his rise.

A boon it is to Chris’ argument to shovel blame on Trump himself. But why give him so much credit? Trump is a semblance of an authoritarian but merely a manifestation of something all too American: white supremacy.

This is the man who, alongside an obsequious Roger Stone, sparked the birther debate, a way to delegitimize Barack Obama vis-à-vis his blackness. Obama’s presidency challenged the white American’s notion of ownership over power. By elevating people of color in government, Obama appropriated some of the white man’s reign. Obama made whiteness less visible, thereby disempowering its claim to supremacy. To attribute Trump’s rise to anything but white supremacy would be a fault.

That’s why to lament his latest tweet, decry his foreign relations, or question his intellect—while not unnecessary—misses the mark. We should stop acting surprised that a white supremacist is acting like a white supremacist.

To label Trump a maniac, an anomaly, is to give power to white supremacy. He’s not an outsider among Americans, and his principles are not distinct from his supporters’. Thus, exaggerating responses to his reckless acts only helps cloak the subliminal current carrying Trump. Acting as if the sentiments he embodies are new or shocking betrays their deep-seated history in American government.

So yes—it’s been bad. Perhaps even worse than most expected. But our failure to expect the worst from a man emblematic of centuries-old resentment is on us. Let’s stop acting surprised, and let’s stop acting like the world is ending. There is nothing new about the attitudes Trump has made acceptable to propagate again.

Admittedly, Chris has a point in recognizing what is new: Trump’s general disregard for any norms of conduct is dismaying. And yes, his overtness on race and American righteousness in discourse is appalling; our preceding presidents were more keen to disguise their prejudices.

But these are peripheral issues to the deeper problem that engendered Trump as anyone of legitimacy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates strikes this distinction in “Between The World And Me” regarding responses to police brutality. While calls for body cameras and sensitivity training are good things, he writes, “The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.”

Coates’ argument illuminates the problem with a reactive approach: The response may be right, but it doesn’t get at the underlying issue that will continue to perpetuate it.

That distinction is wholly relevant in the Trump age. We can reactively attack Trump’s every transgression of norms, but by giving him the benefit of uniqueness, we sanitize the white supremacy that undergirds his presidency. Say it with me: This is not new.

While my contender is right in acknowledging the absurdity of Trump’s actions, the “hellscape” we inhabit is not a result of Trump. It is, rather, a result of centuries-old racism and white supremacy that was bound to reemerge, hastened by the eminence of our black president.

As we look back a year later, let’s look back further. Trump has not popularized resentment but has rather made it more acceptable. As troubling as it may be, these sentiments are an indelible mark on American history; Trump is just a much more arrogant and overt display of it.


It’s the End of the World as We Know It

And I don’t feel fine
By: Chris Shea

A little over a year ago Donald Trump was elected to the highest public office in the United States: the presidency. That’s right, only a year. Now my friend, and colleague, Alex will try and tell you that things haven’t been that bad since Trump’s electoral victory; he may even use facts and figures to support his argument, but he is wrong.

Since that night last November, this country has turned into an absolute hellscape. The government is now headed by a former reality television show host who constantly pushes this nation to the brink of nuclear war on Twitter. Before Trump, I never had to worry if the president of the U.S. was going to insult another world leader in 140 characters … and now 280.

President Trump is testing the institution of the presidency unlike any of his predecessors. We have never had a president so ill-informed about the nature of the Oval Office or so brazen in his attacks against federal judges, the press, and Congress (including members of his own party). This is not normal.

When the Founding Fathers of this nation created the executive branch, they did not want it to replicate the monarchy from which it had just separated. To achieve this, they established an office with ambiguous authorities. This vagueness allowed the presidency to grow into the institution it is today, but also means that the office itself is shaped by the person who occupies it. And currently, it is in terrible shape. Like some sort of weird looking oblong.

Now I could use a bunch of fancy quotes to prove my point, but I don’t have to. If you are still on the fence about whether or not this presidency is worse than expected, just look at the news on any given day of the week. Sure, it’s not like the headlines you see in those dystopian novels, but they’re pretty dang close.

I’m guessing that Alex said that all this stuff was expected. But did you also know that Alex is a fan of the Buffalo Bills? This is a team that lost four straight Super Bowls. If someone could be so wrong in their choice of who their favorite football team is, how can we trust his opinions on anything?

Okay, that was a cheap shot. That was wrong, and I am sorry.

Here is where I would do my concluding sentence to show how I was the one in the right, but instead I will concede to my colleague, Alex. I just could not sustain a cohesive and reasonable argument. Also, he is correct in everything he said. But the guy is still a mouth-breather from Buffalo, New York.